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The world has to control expertise earlier than it's too late

The change of a century is on the verge of being wedged into a single decade. By 2030, entire industries are likely to be replaced by software code. Entire professions could wake up and find their livelihood superfluous. Robots may do our jobs, patrol our streets, and wage our wars.

In addition to lives and jobs, entire nations could be turned upside down: digital currencies could destabilize global finances, robotics will likely accelerate the shift in production, and falling renewable energy costs will turn the energy away from petrostats. Nations will compete harder than they have for generations. Furthermore, all of these changes will take place simultaneously and in a way that promises to be disorderly everywhere.

It is therefore more urgent than ever that the nations of the world come together to reach a common consensus on a wide range of technologies and their future uses. The earthquake will not end at borders or respect national politics. What is urgently needed is a shared understanding of the ethics of what is allowed, what is not and how globally we can work together to ensure that countries, companies, research institutions and individuals respect these boundaries. Yes, we all know the arguments against governments interfering with scientific advances and innovations in the free market: that they stifle them or use them only for their own purposes. But not to act would be reckless. The huge bulldozer of challenges facing us right now makes it inevitable to make important collective decisions.

So far, governments have tried arbitrarily to stay in control. Countries, for example, have effectively divided the global Internet into a number of national or regional networks that are under their control – including social media, payments, shopping, news, and data storage. However, as technology advances rapidly, this quilt of various approaches will no longer work. Any further progress will raise new and fundamental questions of ethics and justice that cross boundaries and affect the interests of all concerned.

Under different pressures, nations will come to very different conclusions about the appropriate use of technology. Until recently, societies were able to adapt to new technologies in slow motion – studying their effects and determining how to regulate them over a period of decades. The increasing speed and breadth of change, fueled by the increasing availability of powerful, yet less expensive, new technologies, make regulatory changes at such a slow pace unsustainable.

The battles Facebook has waged with Australia over who should pay to link to news articles – a corporation against a big country and its media – will seem curious as we argue over the deadly and destabilizing effects of battlefield killing machines controlled by artificial intelligence. Whether COVID-19 was the result of a natural disaster or a failed laboratory experiment doesn't matter, as biohackers and governments are willingly developing viruses to start pandemics.

We urgently need a consensus among governments that will restrict the use of a wide range of technologies and establish a mechanism for redress by countries responsible for their abuse. Before governments can do this, societies must decide what is acceptable. After all, laws are codified ethics – and ethics are defined by social consensus. Every society approaches every advance with its own cultural, historical and moral perspective.

These cultural differences were at the heart of a series of Exponential Innovation workshops we held with executives from companies in more than 30 countries. We introduce you to a hypothetical dilemma involving the use of CRISPR gene editing technology, a fast and inexpensive method for targeted genetic engineering. If their unborn child had a debilitating genetic disorder that resulted in lifelong suffering, and a doctor had the technology to manipulate the fetus' genes by giving the mother a single injection, what would they decide? A fifth of the participants said they would oppose the novel treatment – but their reasons were very different in different cultures. In Mexico, Catholic participants were concerned about God's will. In Malaysia the leaders discussed the conformity of the technology with the teachings of Islam. Many in Switzerland have raised the issue of the social inequalities that technology would create.

The questions and moral dilemmas posed by new technology are often unexpected and difficult to deal with. There are also no simple answers as to how these technologies can be safely and responsibly integrated into our world. To keep up with technology, we need our collective ethical governance to keep up with technology creep. We can only achieve this by building levels of mutual understanding and the resulting agreement of acceptable boundaries. Once we find these boundaries locally, we need to set them globally. Technology is constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible, but politics and culture ultimately determine what we allow.

It will of course not be easy to find a common cause in such complex areas, but the world has adapted to the occasion beforehand. Chemical weapons, ozone-depleting chemicals, climate change, marine conservation, human rights, and the protection of places of cultural and natural value – these are some of the issues on which nations have been able to reach broad agreement. International treaties and agreements have set limits to what is permissible, created supervisory bodies, set up pools of capital, and determined the consequences of failure to comply with the rules.

A unanimous agreement is not required for progress. Genetic engineering is a case in point: Although we have been able to clone cattle, sheep, cats, dogs, deer, horses, mules, rabbits and rats for decades, no one has – at least as far as we know – cloned full people. While there is no formal treaty prohibiting this practice, tools of global governance like the United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning of 2005 have created strong norms and guidelines that have kept technology in check. Even partial human experimentation has been the most discouraged in various social and political cultures. When a Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, announced that he had created the first gene-edited babies, the resulting global turmoil prompted Chinese authorities to arrest him and later sentenced him to three years in prison for unethical behavior, which one draws a clear line between what is and what is unacceptable – even if the reprimand came after the damage had occurred.

In the 1970s, a wave of environmental protection swept much of the world and resulted in two decades of ambitious global conferences. And it worked: an understanding of the resource limits and ecological fragility of the only planet available to us resulted in a number of effective conventions, recommendations, and strategies. That should be our model – unless we need to move faster.

It is time to gain a common understanding of the advanced technologies that can reshape our world. International institutions and old-fashioned diplomacy seem a naive hope and an outdated approach. But given the enormous and truly unprecedented challenges that lie ahead, this is the only chance we have. The alternative is not only technological disruption on a scale the world has never seen, but also social, economic and political chaos.

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